Babs looked up as she heard the kitchen door swing open. Dick trudged in, looking impossibly tired.
"You look like hell, Former Boy Wonder," she said worriedly. Mentally, she put aside her decision to convince him to call Bruce immediately. "Bad day?"
Dick answered with a groan.
"Want to tell me about it?"
"Later, maybe," Dick sighed, walking up to her chair and wrapping his arms around her shoulders. He buried his face in the cloud of red hair and sighed blissfully.
"I love you," he said quietly, kissing her forehead.
"If you love me so much, go fire up the grill," Babs suggested with a faint flush. "And let Spud know you're home. He's tried to be a perfect terror all day."
"Dr. Leslie beat him, didn't she?" Dick asked, claiming the grilling utensils.
"I've never seen a woman whip a kid into shape faster than she did."
"You're jealous, aren't you?"
"I'll go find him." Dick planted a kiss on the top of her head and took off down the hall.
Babs smiled to herself and set about placing the gooey ribs on a foil-lined tray for Dick to take out to the grill.
A rap on the lower half of the kitchen door startled her into dropping one rack back into the sauce and she looked up to see Filb grinning at her. She waved him in and had to laugh as she saw the pint-sized cowboy hat perched precariously on Filb's rather large head.
"You like the new headgear?" Filb asked, leaning down to kiss Barbara's cheek.
"It's very becoming," Babs joked back. "I guess Dick told you about our little cowboy?"
"That he did," Filb declared, steadying the hat. "Figured I'd contribute to the collection."
"He'll love it," Babs assured him. "Thank you, Filb. It's really sweet of you to think of him.
"Nah," Filb replied gruffly. "Sweet of you to feed an old man."
"Filb, you're family, you know that," Barbara chided him. She started to say something else, but she was interrupted by her husband, storming the kitchen with an eight-year-old on his shoulders.
Filb and Babs looked at the duo, then back at each other, sympathy for each other echoing loudly.
"You got meat for me, Babs?" Dick asked, eyeing the ribs. "Filb, 'bout time you got here. Come help me teach Spud how REAL meat is cooked."
Filb glanced up at the boy on Dick's shoulders. "Hey, there, pardner," he drawled. "Don't suppose you remember me?"
Spud nodded silently, his wide eyes transfixed on Filb's hat.
"Hear you got a new toy."
Spud nodded again. Dick cast his eyes up, trying to see Spud's face.
"So happens I like cowboys pretty much myself. What say we play a bit after dinner?"
"Really?" he asked, face lighting up.
Dick swung Spud down to the ground. The boy immediately attached himself to Filb's side.
"You've got a pretty sweet hat there," Spud pointed out.
"That I do," Filb agreed. "Picked it up this afternoon. Figured it would come in handy for playing cowboy, doncha think?"
"It's a *good* cowboy hat," Spud agreed. He took Filb's hand and pulled the older man out to the patio where Dick had just turned on the gas grill and was prepping the racks of ribs. Barbara leaned on her hand and smiled.
Dick's attempts at indoctrinating Spud in the ways of flame-broiled beef ground to a halt when it became obvious that Filb and his undersized hat held infinitely more interest. Silently conceding defeat, Dick used a pair of tongs to turn the meat as he listened to the chatter between the older man and the little boy.
"This is Evil Spoon," Spud explained to Filb. "And this is Susie Suds. And the horse is going to save her."
"Doesn't your horse have a name?" Barbara asked, wheeling herself onto the patio with a bowl of cole slaw.
"No," Spud replied as if slightly confused. "Does it need one?"
"No harm in having a name," Filb drawled. "The way I figure it, you'll need to know what to yell if he gets lost."
"He won't get lost," Spud responded instantly. "I'll take good care of him."
Babs and Dick exchanged a puzzled glance at Spud's fierce devotion to keeping the toy safe. Dick shrugged and turned back to the grill just in time to prevent one of the racks of ribs from bursting into flame.
"Sure you will, little buddy," Filb agreed. "But horses wander off all the time. A name might even make him feel a little more cheerful."
Spud studied his toy and considered Filb's words. "How about Dick?"
Filb managed to swallow a guffaw and pretended to think on the matter.
"Spud," Dick protested. "*I* don't even like the name Dick. Why would you want to name your horse after me?"
"Now here's a thought," Filb said, ignoring Dick. "If you name the horse Dick, you might get him mixed up with Dick, here."
"He's a horse," Spud pointed out, gesturing to his horse. "And he's a person," he noted, nodding at Dick.
"Doesn't miss a trick," Babs murmured under her breath.
"But what if one of them were lost?" Filb reasoned. "If you yelled 'Dick!' then they wouldn't know which one they were looking for."
Spud thought a moment. "I guess," he agreed reluctantly. "But I don't know what I *should* call him."
"How about Buckshot?" Babs suggested, naming the sobriquet given by the toy company.
"Ok," Spud agreed. He turned to Filb. "Can Buckshot wear your hat?"
"No problem little buddy," Filb assured him, clapping the hat over the entire horse. "Not a problem."
"We're not doing the hand-holding thing?" Spud asked accusingly as Barbara passed Filb the platter of dripping ribs.
"We don't usually do that when Filb's over," Dick explained, glancing apologetically at his partner.
"S'no problem," Filb declared, setting the plate down without taking any. "I'll hold hands. 'Specially if I get to hold hands with Barbara." He winked at Spud and offered a beefy paw. Spud squeezed a small hand over Filb's palm and reached his other hand out to Dick. Barbara reached for Filb and Dick, smiling at Spud.
"Spud, you want to explain this to Filb, since he hasn't done it before?"
"We hold hands," Spud said, as if talking to someone very slow.
"Spud..." Dick warned, raising an eyebrow at him.
"And we think about being glad to be here," Spud finished. "Are you glad to be here?"
Filb smiled sadly. "I sure am. I don't have anyone to hold hands with at home."
"You don’t have a kid?"
"I have lots of kids," Filb said. "But they all belong to other people." He smiled and explained his cryptic comment. "I coach Little League, Spud, so kids can play baseball. But my wife and I couldn't have our own kids to take home with us."
"Oh. Where's your wife?"
Suddenly the table seemed very quiet.
"She got very sick and... she died, son."
"Oh." Spud studied Filb hard. "Like Scorch?"
Filb nodded slowly. "A little bit different. But I miss her just as much as you miss Scorch."
Barbara shook her hand from Dick's grasp and brushed at a tear sliding down her face. Dick reached over and cupped her cheek in his hand. He squeezed Spud's hand on his other side.
"See, buddy?" he asked softly. "Everyone has someone they miss. That's why we hold hands and remember them and then we go on and do things that would make themproud of us. Now c'mon, let's do this so we can eat some ribs!"
Not sure what ribs really were, but motivated by the delicious aroma to find out, Spud ducked his head and squeezed his eyes shut until he heard the rest of the table's occupants lift their own heads and start moving.
"Now," Filb proclaimed, dumping a heap of ribs on his plate and doing the same to Spud's, "I'm going to teach you to eat ribs right. I'd leave it up to Grayson here, but that boy leaves meat on the bones!"
"I do not," Dick protested to deaf ears.
"A crying shame I tell you," Filb continued as if Dick had not said a word, "a crying shame. Sleeves up?"
Hanging on to Filb's every word, Spud dutifully pushed his sleeves above the elbow. One promptly slid back down.
"We gotta fix this," Filb informed him, "or we ain't getting nowhere." He reached over to roll up Spud's sleeve and was surprised when a vicious little set of teeth clamped into his hand. "Hey!"
"Spud!" The dual cry from Dick and Babs made him release immediately.
"What's the matter with you?" Dick asked, starting to rise. "I thought you liked Filb!"
"Siddown," Filb said mildly, waving Dick back. "You're lucky, boy," he said to Spud. "Didn't break the skin. 'Fraid I was gonna take your food?"
Spud's head rolled down and his knees came up under his chin until he was sitting on the seat in a little ball. "I'm sorry," he mumbled.
"Hey." Filb's large hand nearly covered Spud's back. "You don't have to fight for your food here. Just r'member that next time you're thinking 'bout chomping on my hand, hear?"
Spud nodded solemnly.
"Ok, then. Get that sleeve rolled up and we'll eat some ribs."
Spud scrambled onto his knees and held out his arm to Filb, who carefully folded the red sweatshirt sleeve up to his elbow.
"Ok, you ready?" Filb asked when Spud was poised in front of his plate. At Spud's nod, the older man continued, "First thing, you take one end in each hand like so."
Spud looked at the messy ribs and smiled as he picked one up, sauce squishing deliciously between his fingers.
"Now you want to start on one end, here, like this," Filb instructed, lifting one end of the rib.
"No, no, no," Dick interrupted. "You want to turn the curve outward and just chomp the middle. Like this." He dove greedily into the middle of his piece of meat and came up chewing happily, sauce smearing his cheeks.
"That's disgusting," Babs informed him archly, tearing away a strip of meat and popping it in her mouth.
"And you're setting a bad example," Filb added sternly. "Now, Spud, we're going to start at this corner and bite inward. Tear as little as possible."
Keeping on eye on his new mentor, Spud bit into the rib and gnawed on it curiously.
"Good," Filb congratulated him. "Now, you gotta make sure you—huh."
Spud's technique had changed.
"That was fast," Filb commented.
"That was messy," Barbara commented with a wrinkle of her nose.
"That's my boy." Dick nodded assuredly.
Spud looked up at the three adults staring at him, sauce ringing his mouth, dotting his nose and making its way down his chin.
"Hold on a minute," Babs insisted, scrubbing Spud's chin with a dishcloth. "How did you get sauce all the way up here?" she wondered to herself as she spied a blob on his ear.
"Ow," Spud protested, trying to wriggle away. "That's cold."
"Sorry," Babs apologized, passing the rag back to the sink for re-wetting—with warm water this time.
Free from her grasp, Spud took off down the hall to get his toys.
"He's clean enough," Filb shrugged, donning the mini cowboy hat he'd taken off for dinner. "Ya gotta let some things go."
Barbara sighed and tossed her dishrag into the sink.
By this point, Spud was back, arms overflowing with Buckshot the Horse, the Evil Spoon, the bottle of dish soap, the printer cord and a few other household items Babs hadn't had a chance to miss.
"C'mon, Filb!" he cried, dashing through the kitchen. "Let's go play!"
"If ya'll will excuse me," Filb drawled, "my presence's bein' r'quested in the other room." He tipped his little hat to Dick and Babs and moseyed into the living room.
"He's great with Spud," Dick commented, swishing his towel around a plate.
"Great," Barbara muttered under her breath. "Maybe *he* should have taken Spud home."
"Ok, now I'll be the horse and you be the cowboy," Spud instructed.
"Don't you want to be the cowboy?" Filb asked, tipping his hat back and scratching his head.
"Nah, I'm a shrimpkin so I have to be the horse," Spud insisted solemnly.
"Now where did you get that idea?" Filb demanded. His voice was gentle but it was clear he'd take no guff.
"When we still lived with Mommy and I went to school," Spud explained, playing with the horse's felt foot, "we had a horsey like this and a cowboy and a dog and I had to be the horse 'cuz Ronnie said I was too little to be the hero. 'Sides," he added with a shrug, apparently fascinated with the horse's foot, "you have a hat. Gotta have a hat to be a cowboy."
"Well." Filb regarded his young friend carefully. "I'll reckon you're a bit bigger than you were when that went on. Probably right ready to be a hero." He took off the hat and plopped it on Spud's head.
Spud quickly looked up into kindly blue eyes.
"I got another one at home," Filb assured him. "And I don't think this one fits so well anymore."
"What did you say?" Dick asked, leaning across to shut off the running water.
"Nothing," Babs told him, shaking her head and becoming intent on the dishes.
Dick studied her carefully.
Barbara sighed. "I was just thinking that it was a shame Filb and Marina never had any kids."
"Yeah," Dick agreed, nodding slowly. "But I think they were pretty happy with what they had."
"Of course they were." Barbara smiled brightly.
Dick wasn't entirely sure he'd gotten to the bottom of things, but at the moment, it didn't seem worth the effort.
"Let's make some coffee," he suggested instead.
Silently, Barbara opened the cabinet door that held the filters and coffee grounds and Dick filled the carafe with water. In a few well-coordinated minutes, the coffee was cheerfully dripping into the pot and Dick was searching out milk and sugar.
"I've got... rumblings," Dick confessed when they were sitting at the table with their steaming mugs of coffee. "A rumor here, a thought there. Mostly nothing."
Barbara shook her head, frustrated to be back on this topic, but glad she'd escaped her unfortunately slip of tongue. "Dick, sometimes things don't happen in big, elaborate evil plans. Sometimes bad things happen and they just... happen."
"I know," Dick returned quickly. "But it's just SO big, you know? I'm just sure I’m missing something."
"Dick," Barbara scolded him, looking over her mug. "You're almost as—"
"So how did today go?" Dick interrupted, obviously skipping over his problem to a topic more immediate. "How was Spud at Dr. Leslie's?"
"He was..." Babs couldn't bring herself to actually say, 'bad'. "He was a handful."
"What'd Leslie say?"
Oh. Barbara wanted to go back to the behavior problems but... "She said he's malnourished. He needs good food, vitamins, calcium chews. We got a prescription filled for the vitamins and picked up a box of the chews at the drugstore. He seems to like them."
"That's good," Dick replied absently. "Shouldn't be a problem then."
Right. For just a moment, Barbara despaired, having so much to say and having no idea how to get it out. For the first time in a long time, she felt like she was sitting across the table from a stranger. She suddenly didn't know how to tell him what was going through her mind and how he was going to react. It was a strange, alien feeling, and it scared her.
"Are you and Spud getting along all right?" Dick looked concerned. "I'm not around all day and if he's giving you trouble..."
"I..." This was her chance. This was when she should confess all the uncertainty and anxiety of the morning, the embarrassment from the clinic... her complete and utter fear that she would fail at this, would fail Spud. But she didn't. "He's tough sometimes," she said instead. "But... I mean, if we could have had our own child, we'd have to take what we got, right? I mean, we couldn’t exactly give him back or anything." Her chin set determinedly. "And we're not giving back Spud."
Dick blinked at her. "I wasn't suggesting we should," he said in surprise.
Barbara's bravado from a single minute earlier evaporated and the fear came back, making her bite her lip against the conflicting feelings within her. She was taking a deep breath, preparing an explanation of her feelings when the sound of someone clearing his throat interrupted her thoughts.
She and Dick both looked up to see Filb cradling a sleeping Spud against his shoulder. The cowboy hat was sitting on Spud's head. Filb grinned at them both.
"I think this belongs to you."
When Spud was tucked in and Filb thanked profusely and seen to the door, Dick went downstairs to change and Barbara settled into her spot in front of the computer banks. How could she be so tired when her real work was just beginning? She easily found Robin and Batgirl, close to the beginning of the clover leaf pattern they used to sweep Gotham. Dinah, bless her, was cheerfully en route to Cordova, her third detour of the trip. She was being surprisingly quiet and Babs hoped her partner was managing to catch a few minutes of sleep before she went into her next job.
Batman was... Babs smiled to herself, remembering Bruce in the diner that afternoon. And it *was* Bruce. It was the intelligent, funny, caring man she'd had her first teenage crush on. The warm, patient, affectionate person who'd helped Dick through the loss of his parents and the turmoil of his early teens. She hadn't seen him in so long. When she talked to the man, it was nearly always the Batman, and it was even the Batman who wore the blankly confused mask of Brucie Wayne, playboy socialite. She missed the old Bruce. And she knew Dick did, too. Not that Batman couldn't be dealt with. He could even be warm on occasion. But even a warm Batman—was that an oxymoron?--wasn't *Bruce*. Not the Bruce who had gone into hiding in fear of being taken by surprise by another disaster. Not the Bruce she'd suddenly seen again today.
It was a revelation she wished she could share with Dick. But Bruce had asked. Not ordered, but asked. Asked her not to mention the visit to Dick. Asked Spud to make a secret pact to surprise Dick. And then he'd asked her one more thing...
"Bruce called," Barbara told Dick as he stepped out of the elevator. "He was all cryptic and goofy and annoying. And he wants you to call him back." She felt a little guilty over the deception Bruce had asked her to assist. But not much.
"Later," Dick promised, tugging on his gauntlets. If he talked to Bruce, he'd have to tell him about Spud and Dick just wasn’t ready for that step quite yet.
"Don't put it off too long," Babs warned. "You know how he gets."
Dick grimaced. "Yeah, I know." He leaned down to give Barbara quick kiss goodbye—the only ritual that brought him to the ground floor in costume—and went back down the elevator to the sub-basement where he'd stashed the WingCycle. Why did Bruce have to butt in *now*?
Bruce was sure to disapprove. Bruce would say he had been too impetuous, too spontaneous. Bruce would warn him of the troubles kids growing up on the streets face. Bruce would never, ever mention Jason, but he would be the first thing on both their minds.
Dick wasn't ready to talk to Bruce just yet. So he flew. First on the Wing Cycle, up to the warehouse, then to the jumplines, throwing himself to the air currents of Blüdhaven, letting them carry him from building to building. A hard series of building-to-building acrobatics took him swiftly through his city, a quick patrol to get out of the way before he got down to his real business. He landed on top of the Zee Moores, reeling in his line and letting his mouth fall into a grin. He was breathing slightly hard, the race through the city bringing adrenaline to the blood pumping in his ear. The air felt crisp and cool, still absent of the mugginess summer would bring. It felt *good*.
Luis Fernandez swaggered into 'his' alley and stuck a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. He scraped a match against the brick wall and cupped his hand around the tiny flame. It flickered and died. Luis frowned. There was no wind that night. He glanced to his right, then to his left, digging another match from his pocket. He lit it against the wall. This time, he felt the breeze when the light died. It came from above. He looked up and immediately wished he hadn't. White beams in a swath of black cut through him as a hand grabbed his jacket and pulled him up, onto the wall. Luis struggled against the fist pinning him to the side of the alley. He could still breathe, but it hurt and he couldn't reach his piece or the stiletto he kept in his boot.
"Don't even try it," a raspy voice growled.
Luis felt the rough brick scrape against his neck as he struggled. His feet were several feet from the ground, and he realized, his eyes widening in horror, that his attacker came from above. He shifted his eyes upward, taking in the dark shadow suspended from—from what, Luis couldn't tell. Looked like the guy was floating there. Luis swallowed. This had to be the Nightwing all the kids jawed on about. The one he'd scoffed at for years. Suddenly the street legend didn't seem so far away and Luis was remembering huddling in an alley as a young teenager, a younger kid running up to tell him about the bogeyman who spit fire and had knocked out three of Blockbuster's goon squad. Luis had laughed.
Luis was no longer laughing.
Barbara opened her eyes to the ceiling of her bedroom. She felt confused. She heard these sounds...
Spud! More nightmares. She glanced over to Dick's side of the bed, expecting to see the covers rumpled and abandoned. Instead, they were drawn up under the pillow, warped only where they'd been dragged down by her own side of the covers. Dick wasn't home yet.
She grabbed a robe and hauled herself into her chair. The movement reminded her how exhausted she was. Unused to dealing with a hyperactive eight-year-old all day, she had collapsed into bed shortly after tucking Spud in and seeing Dick off.
Now she wheeled quietly to his room, turning on the lights as she passed.
"Spud, wake up," she urged hesitantly. She wasn't used to this. She glanced at the bed. She could get on it but she wasn't sure she could get back to her chair later. She sidled up to the mattress and placed her hand on Spud's shoulder. "Honey, wake up," she whispered.
Spud came awake with a cry.
"Spud, it's me, it's Babs," she offered, feeling awkward. "Come here." She held out her arms to him.
He shrank back. "Where's Dick?"
Babs blinked. She hadn’t expected those words to sting so badly.
"He's..." Out? In the middle of the night? "He had to go to work for a little bit."
"With Filb?" Spud wiped his nose on the back of his hand.
Barbara offered him a tissue from the box on the bedside table. He took it, but he didn't use it.
"Yep," she confirmed. "He's with Filb."
"Ok," Spud said slowly. "When's he coming home?"
"Soon, kiddo," Babs replied, glancing uselessly toward the door. "I hope."